Back to school: Students to return to campus this fall

by Mackenzie Reiss
| July 17, 2020 8:43 AM

Bigfork students will be returning to the classroom this fall, according to plans approved June 29 by the district’s Board of Trustees. During Phase 2 of the state’s reopening, students will attend class as usual, but may be required to don face coverings in common and high traffic areas, where maintaining social distancing would be difficult. Students will use hand sanitizer and undergo a health screening prior to entry — older students will be asked a series of questions while younger students will undergo a temperature check. Masks will be required during this process and also on school buses.

Bigfork Superintendent Matt Jensen said the district will adapt their recommendations under the direction of healthcare experts, but for now are erring on the side of safety to do whatever is necessary to keep students in the building, where a higher quality of education can be achieved.

“The spirit of it is we just want to be back working with kids and we’re willing to do whatever we need to do to make that happen,” Jensen said. “There’s a lot of folks that need their kids to be at school or be at daycare so they can work and that’s another reality we want to be conscious of,” he added.

Families will have the option to continue remote learning for “health reasons” that could pertain to either the individual student or their family members. For example, a parent with a preexisting condition may choose to keep their child at home rather than risk the possibility of infection.

For those who choose virtual learning, online class periods will be held in real time -- meaning a student will log on to a virtual classroom at a specific time corresponding to a traditional school schedule. For teachers, this means they might lead class in-person for periods 1-4, but will teach period 5 virtually.

Based on preliminary assessments of students, Jensen said data showed that students who attended classes in the spring at scheduled times online fared better than those who worked more independently. He also noted that the online classroom isn’t “ideal” because kids miss out on the interactions that they get with other students in a physical classroom environment.

So what happens if a student who wants to attend in-person classes refuses to mask up?

“We have to be conscientious of the political implications that kids might bring to the table and legitimate health related issues,” Jensen said. “Like all discipline … we first try to meet with the kids and understand their perspective and their reasoning for not doing it.”

The issue of to where or not to wear a mask has become politicized in recent weeks — some claim requirements to wear masks constitute a violation of their rights while others maintain that masks are an effective means of reducing community-wide spread. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends wearing cloth masks — not N95 respirators — in areas where social distancing is difficult to maintain. The agency explains further that cloth masks that are “widely used by people in public settings” are most likely to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

Jensen said that those who decline to don a mask will be offered the option to continue school remotely.

In the event that a student or staff member contracts COVID-19, the school will switch to virtual learning for the three to five day period that it takes to complete contact tracing — a process where health department officials identify people who have had contact with the infected person, defined as being within six feet of them for at least 15 minutes within a two-day period.

Other practices to ensure staff and student safety include hand washing instruction, frequent sanitizing and gatherings restricted to 50 students or less. When the state enters Phase 3 of reopening, face masks will no longer be required in common areas, but will be permitted on campus should students prefer to wear them. Visitors will also be allowed at the school and facilities will be available for public rental.

If the state regresses back to Phase 1, grades 5-12 will revert back to online learning and students in lower grade levels will be split alphabetically, with one section attending in person classes on Mondays and Tuesdays, for example, and the second half attending on Thursdays and Fridays, with the remaining course hours conducted virtually.

Before students step foot on campus, the school district is continuing to gather information from parents. The school recently sent out a survey to assess how comfortable parents were with their students returning to school, wearing a mask and whether they preferred in-person or virtual learning, or a combination of the two.

“We all need to remain open-minded and we need to remain flexible and understand that our primary focus is to keep kids learning,” Jensen said. “...Hopefully the things that unite us are stronger than all of those little things that could divide us.” ■